On February 3, 1986, Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, and Lucasfilm vice president Doug Johnson sat down in a law firm conference room with Steve Jobs, then recently ousted from Apple, to sign the papers that would give Jobs the keys to Lucasfilm’s computer graphics group. The new company would be called Pixar.
Pixar came close to death time after time in the years that followed. It failed at making and selling computer hardware; its product, the Pixar Image Computer, was supposed to sell by the truckload to hospitals, research labs, and defense agencies. It flopped.
Pixar then remade itself into a software company, selling high-end software for rendering 3D graphics (a product then known as PhotoRealistic RenderMan) along with consumer-level software for creating 3D typography (Typestry) and 3D scenes (ShowPlace).
Year after year, Pixar kept posting multi-million dollar losses. By 1994, a despairing Jobs had tried to unload all or part of the company on Hallmark, Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, and finally—of all companies—Microsoft.
What would save Pixar was a tiny group consisting of an ex-Disney animator and a couple of technical guys who created brilliant animated short films to promote the company and test its software.
My own introduction to the company came from seeing one of their efforts, an unfinished version of Tin Toy, at a conference in the late 1980s. I was astonished by the humor and pathos John Lasseter had brought to the medium of computer animation—as astonished as I’d been by the opening shots of Star Wars a decade earlier.
When Pixar went beyond the conference and animation-festival circuit and into the multiplex with Toy Story in 1995, it changed the art and business of animation overnight. True, if Pixar hadn’t made the first computer-animated feature film, someone else eventually would have. But if Toy Story hadn’t been a superlative film, it’s doubtful computer graphics would have taken over feature animation as it did.
Pixar’s most extraordinary creation, perhaps, is its repeatable process for creating stories that audiences will want to see. I don’t mean a “formula,” but a way of incubating stories: putting story development in the hands of the director and providing regular feedback from a director’s peers.
I have lost count of the number of Harvard Business Review articles and blog entries that have looked at the studio’s process of fostering creativity and innovation. What fascinates me is that in Hollywood, where imitation is far from a dirty word, there’s so little imitation of Pixar’s very successful methods.
On this, Pixar’s 25th anniversary, I wish Ed, John, Steve, and the rest of the Pixar family many more successes to come.
The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company is available in paperback from Vintage Books.